Tour launches Latin American circuit for 2012

Jhonattan Vegas of Venezuela reacts after making the winning putt on the second playoff hole during the final round of the Bob Hope Classic.

Jhonattan Vegas of Venezuela reacts after making the winning putt on the second playoff hole during the final round of the Bob Hope Classic.

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The PGA Tour took its largest step into the Latin American market on Thursday with the announcement of a new tour. The new circuit, meant to spur growth in the region, also will provide players a new way to qualify for the Nationwide Tour.

PGA Tour Latinoamérica, which has been speculated about for several months, will be an 11-event circuit that runs from September to December 2012 with events in Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru. Events will have a minimum purse of $100,000. A complete schedule is expected to be released soon. The tour could conduct up to 14 events in 2013, the Tour said. The PGA Tour also is searching for an umbrella sponsor for the circuit, similar to the sponsorship of the Nationwide Tour.

“This expansion into Latin America ... is part of the natural progression for golf which continues to grow globally,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement. “We see this as an opportunity to help in the further development of elite players across the region. The timing is right, with South America hosting its first ever Olympic Games (in 2016), which includes golf’s return to the competition for the first time in more than 100 years."

The new tour was greeted with excitement from those associated with golf in the region, who viewed it as an opportunity to grow the game at all levels. Venezuela’s Jhonattan Vegas, winner of this year’s Bob Hope Classic, told Golfweek, “That’s the best thing that can happen for Latin American golf. We have lots of phenomenal players that need the opportunity. ... If you associate golf in South America with the PGA Tour, you’re bringing the whole prestige, which is going to bring more sponsors, is going to bring more people into the game, and that’s going to bring more opportunity to guys that have the potential to make it to the PGA Tour. Having that opportunity is going to bring higher-quality golf to the area.”

Latin America’s current tour, the Tour de las Americas, will play a series of events early next year that will help establish priority rankings for the new tour. After those events, the Tour de las America’s staff and schedule will be integrated into the new structure of PGA Tour Latinoamérica. Qualifying tournaments for the new tournament will likely be held next summer, said Jack Warfield, chief of operations for PGA Tour Latinoamerica. Warfield had been the PGA Tour's vice president of championship management.

“The Tour de las Americas is excited to play a new role within the PGA Tour Latinoamérica tour as we continue to build on what we’ve established at the TLA over the past 10 years,” said Tour de las Americas commissioner Henrique Lavie, who will become the new tour’s executive director.

An undetermined number of Nationwide Tour cards will be offered to PGA Tour Latinoamérica’s top performers. The PGA Tour also is trying to get Official World Golf Ranking points for the new tour’s events. The OWGR will be used to determine eligibility for the 2016 Olympics.

This is the first year that the Tour de las Americas’ events offered world-ranking points. The PGA Tour soon will begin discussions with the OWGR’s board about getting world-ranking points for the new tour, according to a Tour source.

"Latin America was one of the last parts of the world that did not have the stability of a strong organized Tour,” Sidney Wolf, tournament chairman of the PGA Tour’s Puerto Rico Open and president of the Puerto Rico Golf Association, told Golfweek. “With the PGA Tour, that will change for the good in all aspects including credibility and new economic and hopefully charitable opportunities, which the PGA Tour has done such a great job with over the years.”

The PGA Tour conducts events in Mexico and Puerto Rico, and Nationwide Tour events in Chile, Colombia, Panama and Mexico. There has been talk of a Tour event, possibly a World Golf Championship, being conducted in Brazil in advance of the 2016 Olympics.

PGA Tour Latinoamérica is the PGA Tour’s first new circuit since 1990, when the Ben Hogan Tour (known today as the Nationwide Tour) was formed. The Champions Tour began in 1980.

The creation of PGA Tour Latinoamérica ensures the PGA Tour will be the dominant tour in the region. The PGA Tour was slow to move into Asia and the Middle East, and now trails far behind the European Tour in that region.

The European Tour also made inroads into South America as early as 2003, when the European Tour’s developmental circuit, the Challenge Tour, began co-sanctioning events with the Tour de las Americas. This has been an avenue to European Tour membership for many Latin American players, just as the Nationwide Tour’s Latin American events have helped the region’s players gain PGA Tour membership.

PGA Tour Latinoamerica, while creating a new opportunity to qualify for the Nationwide Tour, runs at the same time as players' traditional method of qualifying for the PGA and Nationwide tours: Q-School.

The new tour is the culmination of the PGA Tour’s smaller steps into the region. The Nationwide Tour recently announced the inaugural Chile Classic for 2012. The tour’s Colombia event, the Bogota Open, began in 2010. Those events, as well as the Panama stop, will allow the Nationwide Tour to begin with three consecutive events in Central and South America, giving the tour a “more stable, more impactful” start to its season, Nationwide Tour commissioner Bill Calfee told Golfweek.

Calfee said earlier this year that the tour also is looking at adding another event in Colombia and one in the Dominican Republic.

“There’s definitely interest,” he said.

The South American Tour began in 1991, becoming the Tour de las Americas in 2000 when it expanded its reach to include all of Latin America and the Caribbean. The TLA joined the International Federation of PGA Tours in 2007 as an associate member. The TLA began offering OWGR points this year.

PGA Tour Latinoamérica events will be 72-hole, stroke-play tournaments consisting of fields of up to 144 players. The fields will consist primarily of the top professionals in the region, according to the Tour release.

Wolf summed it up simply, saying, “I am confident that this is going to be something very special for all of us.”

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